The Future of Customer Engagement is Virtual

The changes in consumer shopping habits in recent years have been dramatic, and many are permanent. Enlightened retailers and brands recognize that traditional routes to successful sales, customer engagement, and customer retention are no longer satisfactory. And they are embracing these behavioral shifts with great gusto.

Despite shifts to digital buying, brick-and-mortar stores have by no means lost their luster. Consumers crave the high-touch, one-on-one, individualized experience that only in-store shopping can provide. Forrester found that 72% of consumers prefer to use retail stores as all or part of their primary purchase method. And according to McKinsey & Company, 75% of consumers want a seamless omnichannel experience.

The Age of Seamless Shopping

In customers’ minds, they no longer differentiate between channels. Digital and mobile-first shopping habits are so routine that they are integrated into the physical shopping experience. To customers, it’s all just shopping. With 38 percent of consumers planning to use a blend of online and in-person shopping in the future, retailers have an opportunity to maximize buyer experiences into a seamless mix.

Customers no longer differentiate between channels. To them, it’s all just shopping.

AskMe® by MarketSource, a customer engagement game-changer, means customers don’t have to commit to a shopping channel or choose between the human interaction they crave and the digital shopping zones they’re browsing in.

When they head to the store, shoppers expect more from their in-person interactions than ever before: more personalization, more helpful information more quickly, more engagement. Retailers are realizing that effective, consistent, and accessible brand representation and product information has become an essential component of satisfying customer experiences. This new reality has forced brands and retailers to focus on how well they deliver on these three strategies:

  • Communication that instills trust and builds confidencein your store or brand
  • A seamless, frictionless buying process
  • Customer engagement that demonstrates concern for the individual

AskMe provides retailers and brands with a powerful solution that delivers on all of these by bridging the gap between online and offline shopping. With AskMe, we bring a dedicated team of human brand experts to your customers—whether in-store or online—through their devices, which they already rely on while they shop.

It’s a real-time customer engagement solution that connects customers to live agents who serve as personal brand experts while they shop. The connection happens from any mobile device via a QR code appended to the product, a shelf tag, or sticker. Or a sales associate may initiate the connection. Either way, customers have the choice of communicating with an AskMe rep via live video chat, instant message, text, or phone.

On the other end is a highly trained, product-savvy virtual assistant who’s an expert in your brand, ready to answer shoppers’ questions on the spot. Because of the immediate response to their questions and access to a personalized human interaction with a knowledgeable brand expert, retail shoppers enjoy a higher level of shopping satisfaction and connection to your brand or store.

Brand Loyalty is at Risk

Many brands have recognized the importance of providing a strong and seamless customer experience throughout the entire sales journey. But now, consumers have the upper hand.

That’s because the new behaviors and concerns emerging throughout the marketplace are upending traditional retail business strategies that were once proven effective. These new behaviors, circumstances, and attitudes include:

  • Greater frequency of switching brands
  • Pervasive uncertainty about the future
  • Rising reliance on virtual engagement before, during, and after purchase

Before the popularization of e-commerce, no retailer or brand could have imagined someone buying a dress or a luxury handbag online without touching it or trying it on.

Looking ahead, consumers can be counted on to demand that sellers support online transactions through a 360-degree digital customer engagement strategy.

Retailers must respond appropriately to these new expectations. Experts recognize that if they don’t, they risk significant brand loyalty erosion.

If retailers don’t respond to customer expectations, they risk brand loyalty erosion.

An Opportunity to Innovate

In an omnichannel world where the lines between in-store and online shopping blur and customer expectations continue to climb, retailers must find new ways to create authentic, enduring customer connections.  Brands that keep pace with this permanent trend by modernizing their customer engagement, customer service, and sales tactics will have more opportunities to sustain their customer base, stir up and win new customers, and retain them.

A website alone is no longer nearly enough to meet the omnichannel consumer’s expectations. Shopping patterns have shifted so dramatically that retail companies must rethink their delivery methods for products and services—as well as how they orchestrate the entire end-to-end customer experience.

Virtual Customer Engagement is Not Simply ‘Online’

Digital engagement is applied by all kinds of businesses in just about every industry sector. The term encompasses the creation of customer experiences via a variety of online platforms that allow user access on a range of devices. In a mobile society, digital engagement can happen anywhere, anytime. It is by no means limited to the virtual marketplace, and it definitely includes in-store touchpoints.

Digital engagement isn’t the same as e-commerce. If a person tries to purchase an item online but has trouble reaching someone who can answer their question, the downfall of a singular focus on e-commerce sales is clear. Online transactions may be convenient, but they can fail spectacularly in customer service. When you don’t have the benefit of individualized, one-to-one interactions with trained sales professionals, communication–and ultimately the sale–naturally falters.

That’s the difference between simple e-commerce and a robust digital customer experience. Virtual customer engagement – especially with live AskMe experts who can tell your brand story – is necessary for building that emotional bridge that consumers expect when buying in-store or online. Implemented correctly, virtual customer engagement is fully integrated with physical activities and can eliminate the frustration factor hybrid shoppers so often experience.

For instance, solutions like AskMe give shoppers a real-time connection to a knowledgeable brand expert, who can be working in-store or remotely, via text, video chat, or phone. The associate can share comprehensive and comparative product details to help the customer make a confident buying decision on the spot.

Hybrid Selling is Modern Selling

Digital innovations should involve more than just allowing consumers to purchase products online and pick them up at the store or curbside. They should offer more than buying a product with an app while in the store. They should even be more than offering interactive opportunities, such as virtual dressing rooms or sampling.

At their core, these virtual services reflect a convergence of online and in-store customer engagement that creates a hybrid branding approach. This approach combines technological capabilities, customer service methodologies, and retail selling methods to provide a unified experience for the consumer, whether they are interacting in person, on social media, or even through a chat window with an AskMe rep.

Mark Matthews, a National Retail Federation researcher, has said, “While many surveyed consumers still place high value on the traditional in-store shopping experience, they also now expect the flexibility to build their own shopping journey–according to the behaviors prevalent to their age range, available tools, and the product category they are looking to purchase. This hybrid approach is a fundamental shift in consumer behavior.”

A holistic, hybrid approach to sales that resonates with consumers fundamentally recognizes the necessity to provide communication in whatever format is convenient and best serves customers at any point in their buying journey. Particularly in an era dominated by economic uncertainties, digital engagement must be as warm and welcoming as in-person interactions.

The Personalized Customer Experience

There was a time when personalization was limited to adding someone’s name to the top of a targeted direct mail piece. Today, just knowing the customer’s name is table stakes. Consumers expect the companies with which they do business to know them as individuals, to understand their preferences, and to anticipate and meet their needs throughout the customer journey.

The introduction of advanced data collection and analysis technologies has enabled brands to personalize interactions with prospects and customers. In fact, using predictive data analytics can help build a necessary bridge between virtual and in-person shopping.

Brands must understand their customers well enough to propose products, offers, and topics that are uniquely relevant to the individual and to customize the experience at every touchpoint. AskMe brand experts can engage with and accompany customers along a highly personalized shopping journey, hearing their concerns, fielding their questions, and helping them select the ideal product that suits their needs.

Meeting Consumers Where They Are

One thing is certain—if customers are not within the proximity of a store, business owners must find them elsewhere. How can you create a relationship with someone who isn’t even nearby? That is where digital customer engagement shines.

Figure out where the target audience is spending time online and strategize. Depending on the brand, consumers may be found on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, or other platforms. Develop an interactive, robust online experience, filled with useful information combined with entertainment. This strategy could include real-time access to a virtual brand expert, publishing expert blogs, how-to videos for using specific products, or creating digital experiences that mimic a service.

Then, integrate a customer care communication protocol for all the channels. Recognize that some consumers will prefer to talk on the phone, text, or video chat with a live person, or get questions answered through social media. Be flexible and open in your communication.

Improving Technology

Innovation is the key to success in retail. Despite the unprecedented shifts in recent years, many retailers are not only staying afloat but have managed to gain marketing traction by using technology designed to meet customers’ demands for faster, more responsive, and more personalized customer experiences.

Collecting and analyzing data with the help of artificial intelligence can give retailers insights into individual customer behaviors that lead to more personalized interactions. And this can result in greater customer loyalty and trust. An increasing number of brands are experimenting with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to create immersive experiences and simulate live shopping activities, and retailers can use drones to speed and ease order fulfillment and delivery. And customers can summon virtual brand experts right in the aisle next to the product they’re exploring to help them decide and complete their purchase. AskMe leverages and blends the latest innovations in AI and other technologies and with essential human brand expertise to deliver a white glove customer experience that doesn’t end until the customer is getting maximum use of their product back home.

Want to create an online version of your brick-and-mortar store? Is there a way to let shoppers virtually try on or try out items before they buy? Do you have an online scheduling platform, where customers can arrange a one-on-one experience within a retail store’s boutique? Are you collecting data from both online and in-store activities, measuring it, and then applying insights to your merchandising and marketing strategies? Can customers receive real-time feature and price comparisons of competing products and brands by requesting them from a virtual assistant?

All these things are possible. In fact, the potential capabilities of technology may only be limited by the imagination. However, technology is meaningless without the retail leadership, expertise, and trained sales teams to support it.

Training Store Associates and Staff

Digital improvements won’t be as effective without the support of a well-trained and prepared staff. To that end, managers need to ensure that all online and in-store staff can assist with digital customer engagement in all forms.

On a basic level, staff should be able to assist with cashless checkout, contactless payment systems, and curbside deliveries.

Most customers want the opportunity to talk to a living, breathing person in real time when they have a question or a concern about a product or brand. But as staffing shortages continue to plague retailers, it may be a strain to keep enough staff in the store to assure customers can speak with a real person when and where they desire that communication. And that can turn customers away, slicing into potential sales and revenues.

This is where mobile apps, touchless self-serve kiosks, and virtual brand experts can play a significant role.

The challenge is to onboard and train staff so they can understand and use mobile apps alongside customers and be effective, whether in-store or working remotely. But staying up to date on a product line—and having comprehensive, fresh knowledge of features and functionality of different brands, models, or versions—could be a full-time job for a retail associate. But highly trained AskMe experts step in to provide customers with the latest knowledge at hand, leaving store associates free to handle other valuable tasks.  AskMe experts can be in one store—or every store—are available anytime and are equipped with deep product knowledge that empowers customers and associates alike.

Simple enhancements can make a big difference. For instance, consider adding an AskMe pop-up to your website that invites online chat with a brand expert and lets consumers know of other omnichannel communication opportunities available to them. And AskMe reps, available by phone, video chat, and text, can assist in-store sales reps in delivering a high level of brand knowledge and the one-on-one support customers have come to expect.

Ready to talk?

The future of virtual customer engagement is here. AskMe® delivers an anywhere, anytime shopping experience for your brand and a simplified path to a sale. See AskMe in action and envision how it can transform your customer engagement game.

Author: Karen Salamone

Author: Karen Salamone

Karen is Head of Marketing for MarketSource. She is a transformational B2B and B2B2C leader with a history of building marketing organizations, content teams, and demand generation centers of excellence from the ground up. She is recognized for delivering meaningful insights and fresh approaches and for earning best-in-class content, design, and multi-media awards.

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